Saturday, February 28, 2009

World Baseball Classic Preview

I know many of you don't care about the World Baseball Classic and I don't blame you.

For more than 100 years now the "ultimate" in baseball competition has been Major League baseball. The best players come to the United States to participate in the best competition the sport of baseball has to offer. So I can understand if you are leery about anything that detracts from the competition of the Major League Baseball season is just not worth the risk of injury.

I just happen to think differently. Maybe the World Baseball Classic would not have made sense in 1928 when 99.9% of Major League Baseball players came from the United States of America and no other country expressed an earnest interest in the sport. Then, we probably could call the winner of the MLB "World Series Champions" but nowadays, it just doesn't feel right to call the Phillies "World Series Champions" when many successful players come from the Caribbean and Japan has its own successful league.

And that's where I think the World Baseball Classic comes in. How can you not want to know who is truly the best in the World every four years? Admittedly, the presentation is not that impressive yet. Players are still declining invitations (Really, Johan? You had something better to do?) and there are only 16 nations involved. But if baseball truly wants to grow and succeed in this new International community, it is going to want to play up the World Baseball Classic as much as possible. And really, baseball fans, is it going to kill you to watch your team's players compete for their country just one month every four years. I do not think that it is too much to ask, seeing as they play 162 games every year for their employer.

With that in mind, here are my predictions for how the Classic will shake out this year.

16. Netherlands
Rick Vandenhurk, Greg Halman: these are the only Major League ballplayers involved with the Dutch team. Yikes.

15. Republic of South Africa
South Africa, on the other hand actually has 0 Major Leaguers. So, obviously they will finish higher than Netherlands. They don't have to deal with those prima-donnas Vandenhurk and Halman.

14. Italy
The rule that lets players play for a country that one or more of their parents were born in should be called the "Italian" rule. This team is made up of Americans by birth who just happen to come from Italian backgrounds. Whether or not this is fair is up for debate...but what isn't up for debate is that the team is better for it. The "Italians" will finish 14th this year but if an All Star with an Italian-sounding last name comes up in the next four out.

13. China Tapei
File this one under: gut feeling. I have no idea who is on the Tapei team, I just think they'll finish higher than Italy, Holland and South Africa.

Australia is surprisingly a team that is not completely hopeless. I could see them happening into some pitching this year and upsetting a team or two. In this kind of competition, a good pitching performance can eliminate a giant. But they don't have the talent to finish in the Top Half of the competition.

11. China
China is one to look out for. A nation with more than a billion human beings is bound to have a good athlete or two. Plus, we already know that they get jealous of anything Japan does and Japan currently has the International Baseball scene in a headlock right now.

10. Puerto Rico
Mike Aviles is going to be an excellent addition to this team, but he won't be enough to stop Puerto Rico's inevitable decline into oblivion. It's a shame because Puerto Rico would have done well in the 60s and 70s but they seemed to have missed their opportunity. They clearly have the best Catching in the tournament though (Soto, Pudge and the best Molina brother???)

9. United States of America
That's right, America, we won't even finish in the top half of the tournament this year. Why? We just still don't take this tournament seriously. You'd think we'd learn that you can't just show and win after last year but USA baseball has a bad habit of not learning from mistakes. I just can't believe that Ted Lily or Jeremy Guthrie may take the mound as the "best" the U.S has to offer. Jake Peavy absolutely TANKED three years ago in the tournament and Oswalt is a Classic rookie. So, I ask you: where is the pitching coming from? We are so lucky that Ryan Braun, David Wright and Grady Sizemore (Note: Grady will not play) signed though. If that young core can learn from this tournament, we can establish the best offense for the next two or three Classics. But they won't be able to overcome our poor pitching this year.

Whether it is George Mason in the NCCA Tourney or Ghana in the World Cup, every major sports competition needs a "WTF" team. Panama is the 2009 World Baseball Classic's WTF team. They are not necessarily the worst team in the World (just by their inclusion in the Classic, they are better at baseball than more than 200 other countries), but no one probably expects them to finish higher than 13th....except for me. I can conceivably see Carlos Lee catching fire and hitting homer after homer, striking fear into all opponents hearts.

7. Mexico
Oh Lord, am I afraid of Adrian Gonzalez! We already know he performs better for teams he has a personal connection to (he is a San Diego native as well) and I can just see him exploding in this tournament. The Mexican pitching staff is fairly underrated too. I know I wouldn't want to be trailing them, knowing that Joakim Soria is waiting for me in that bullpen.

6. Korea
I really don't know what Korea's strengths and weaknesses are as a team, but I do know that they are a TEAM. Screw Japan and Cuba, Korea was the best overall team three years ago. They would be World Champs if they didn't run into the Dice-K buzz saw. I know a lot can change in three years and the competition is certainly tougher this year but not enough changed for Korea to fall out of the Top 6.

5. Canada
God, what a horrifying offense. Jason Bay, Justin Morneau, Joey Votto and Russell Martin are going to tear International pitching up. I see them cutting a swath through the earlier rounds before running into a good pitcher or two in the later rounds, slowing them down and eliminating them.

4. Dominican Republic
The Dominicans ran into many of the same problems the Americans did three years ago. They had all the talent you could ever ask for but they were too old and didn't take things seriously. I think they run into the same problems this year. They are still a little on the elderly side but I like their pitching a lot more than I did three years ago. If Ubaldo Jiminez, Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto can put something together, they should be alright. But you can't tell me they won't miss the best player on Earth(don't kid yourself, you know who he is). I know their line-up looks like Murderer's Row as well, but again: it is too old, too right-handed and too powerful. Solo home-runs are not going to win the World Baseball Classic. They will make the Final Four on sheer talent alone.

3. Cuba
Cuba is the one team that lives for a competition like this. Their players are not allowed to partake in the MLB so this is truly their World Championship. They want this and they will be one of the most competitive teams in the world for as long as the World Baseball Classic exists. Since they aren't allowed to play in the MLB, I don't know anything about the players...but that means no one else in the tournament does either. There aren't many scouting reports you can find for the Cuban team. So they can take people by surprise and win it all. Man, would I like to see Yulieski Gourriel in an Indians' jersey.

2. Japan
Your 2006 World Champs will be the 2009 Runners-up. All I can say for the competition in 2009 is: watch out for the two-headed monster. Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzake possess the potential to absolutely carve hitters up throughout the tournament. And having two of the best pitchers in the Classic is a horrifying proposition for the competition when 3-man rotations are the norm. And the line-up isn't anything to sleep on. They are the anti-Dominicans. A small, athletic fast line-up that can terrorize teams on the base-paths. The only bad thing I can think about this team is that I don't know too much about their bullpen and Kenji Johjima is somehow involved in the proceedings. Great team, and there is really only one better.

1. Venezuela
I have had a bit of a crush on Venezuelan ballplayers for quite some time now. I believe they possess the talent and potential to become to International Baseball what Argentina is for International Futbol. They are a young, athletic and exciting team that plays the game the right way. Had Johan Santana been involved, I would have proposed that Baseball just cancel the tournament and hand them the trophy now. But I still think they can finish first with the talent they have. Carlos Zambrano, Felix Hernandez and Armando Galaraga can truly shut teams down. It really only takes 3 good pitchers to win this thing and the Venezuelans have that, with K-Rod thrown in the 9th inning for good measure. Bobby Abreu and Magglio Ordonez will be at the top of their game; they are the type of players who I suspect would step it up for their country. I am not quite as sure as Miguel Cabrera. But if he gives a crap....or anything resembling a crap for that matter, he could be one of the better hitters in the Classic. The only thing holding them back might be the bad karma of Omar Vizquel's absence on the team.

Round 1

POOL A Winner: Japan
POOL A Runner-up: Korea

POOL B Winner: Cuba
POOL B Runner-up: Mexico

POOL C Winner: Venezuela
POOL C Runner-up: Canada

POOL D Winner: Dominican Republic
POOL D Runner-up: Panama

Round 2

Japan and Cuba advance

Dominican Republic and Venezuela advance

Round 3

Japan beats Cuba

Venezuela beats Dominican Republic


Venezuela beats Japan

That's it for this week. Come back next week, by which time Manny Ramirez will probably have turned down a 4 year, $99.9 million offer from the Dodgers.

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